News analysis

Diplomatic juggling may score Najib some political points

Upbeat mood from overtures by US, China may make it a good time to call for snap polls

The aggressive courting of Malaysia by the United States and China for two key security-related initiatives this week has given the Najib Razak administration a much-needed political shot in the arm.

The big challenge for the embattled Prime Minister is whether he will be able to capitalise on the international attention to rebuild his government's standing at home ahead of a crucial general election that could be called in coming months.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's overnight visit to Malaysia earlier in the week signalled a new phase in the somewhat frayed ties between Washington and Kuala Lumpur over the ongoing US Department of Justice probe into the financially distressed state-owned 1Malaysia Development Fund (1MDB).

With tensions running high over North Korea's nuclear ambitions, Mr Tillerson successfully grafted Kuala Lumpur to the US campaign to isolate Pyongyang. He received assurances from the Najib administration that it would dismantle the financial infrastructure of private companies that operate in Malaysia and also severely restrict any use of Malaysian ports and airports as transit point for military-related shipments.

PM Najib's assurances to Washington represented some nimble diplomatic juggling because it came ahead of the launch of Malaysia's most ambitious economic venture with China, a close ally of North Korea.

Malaysia established its credentials as Beijing's closest partner among the 10-member Asean with the ground-breaking ceremony on Wednesday of the China-funded RM55 billion (S$17.5 billion) rail link. The line will stretch from a Kelantan town near Malaysia's north-eastern border with Thailand down to the coast to Kuantan Port in Pahang, before cutting through the mountainous central region to Port Klang in Selangor.

To be sure, there are senior politicians in Datuk Seri Najib's ruling Umno party who feel that the conditions are not favourable to head to the polls now. But supporters for a snap poll sometime this year argue that he would be wise to take advantage of disorder within the opposition.

The project, the most expensive infrastructure venture under Beijing's ambitious One Belt, One Road initiative, carries a strong security dimension because it will become the first land bridge connecting the South China Sea on the eastern coast of Peninsular Malaysia with the Strait of Malacca, a passageway China sees as crucial to its overall security.

Close associates of the premier have not spared any time extracting political mileage from the back-to-back diplomatic meetings, arguing that the new rapprochement with the US could lead to some lifting of the 1MDB cloud, while the East Coast Rail Link will boost the government's standing, particularly among the important rural Malay voters.

Elections need not be held until sometime in mid-2018 and politicians in the Najib camp argue that the premier must head to the polls sooner rather than later to take advantage of the current upbeat sentiment.

To be sure, there are senior politicians in Datuk Seri Najib's ruling Umno party who feel that the conditions are not favourable to head to the polls now.But supporters for a snap poll sometime this year argue that he would be wise to take advantage of disorder within the opposition.

The decision by Parti Islam SeMalaysia, the country's largest Muslim party, to break away from the other opposition parties has presented the prospect of three-cornered fights in the coming election, a situation that opposition leaders acknowledge would benefit Barisan Nasional.

Mr Najib is not offering any hints as to when he will head to the polls, but this week's feel-good sentiment arising from the US and Chinese diplomatic meetings may nudge him towards an early election.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2017, with the headline 'Diplomatic juggling may score Najib some political points'. Print Edition | Subscribe